Niemands Frau as a ‘Minor Translation’ of the Odyssey from ‘er’ to ‘sie’

First published in An Odyssey for Our Time. Barbara Köhler’s Niemands Frau (Rodopi, 2013)


Niemands Frau is considered here as a ‘minor translation’ of the Odyssey into a form that flows linguistically, philosophically and politically from Köhler’s treatment of the pronoun ‘sie’, in contrast to what she associates with the pronoun ‘er’. The shift from ‘er’ to ‘sie’ is expressed metaphorically by Köhler in terms of the emergence of quantum physics from Newtonian physics – from an understanding of reality in which objective fact can exist and predictions made, to an understanding which produces plural probability, and where finite, single truth is not possible. These contrasting systems have an ethical dimension for Köhler: she positions the ‘major’ form of (patriarchal) language as a site where hegemonic power is exercised and difference is repressed in opposition to the ‘minor’ form which has a disruptive transgressive effect of undermining the assertion of objectivity on the part of the major, and expanding the possibilities for lived reality, by articulating difference.

‘Eine andere art von übersetzung’[i]

‘Use the minor language to set the major language racing.’[ii]

This chapter engages with the assertion made by Barbara Köhler in the afterword to Niemands Frau (2007) that the poem cycle is a form of ‘translation’ of Homer’s Odyssey (800 BC). The contention is that reading Niemands Frau as a radical, ‘minor’ translation of the Odyssey is a productive way of understanding the nature of Köhler’s intervention into the German literary canon and therefore into cultural hegemony that is supported by notions of what is canonical. At the heart of this ‘minor’ translation is the pronoun ‘sie’, from which Köhler derives a poetics to challenge what she situates as patriarchal political and artistic norms. Defining what her translation will be different from is part of the poetic strategy of the cycle, and Köhler sets out her opposition to the ‘major’ patriarchal politics of earlier translations, to the form of language that articulates such politics, and to translation practice that attempts to give the impression of equivalence and conceal the situated-ness of the translator’s perspective. Köhler’s ‘minor’ translation of the Odyssey acknowledges her own ‘minor’, gendered perspective, rather than assuming a ‘universal’ position, and attempts to create a form of language that she identifies metaphorically with quantum physics, as articulating an uncertain reality of plural probability.

In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari formulate the idea that language is divided between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ forms. Majority implies a constant, of expression or content, serving as a standard measure. […] Let us assume that the constant or standard is the average adult-white-heterosexual-European-male. […] Majority assumes a state of power and domination, not the other way round. […] For the majority, insofar as it is included in the abstract standard, is never anybody, it is always Nobody – Ulysses, whereas the minority is the becoming of everybody. […] We must distinguish between: the majoritarian as a constant and homogeneous system […] and the minoritarian as a potential, creative and created, becoming. [iii]

For Deleuze and Guattari, the ‘major’ and the ‘minor’ are therefore political ways of conceiving of language and, as terms, describe language as a site of power: the major silences the minor (linguistically, philosophically and politically), and the minor is a force that disrupts the apparently ‘universal’ position of the major, by revealing it to be partial, in both senses of the word. Their choice of the figure of Ulysses (Odysseus) as an expression of the ‘major’ makes clear that the Odyssey is a significant feature of the cultural landscape against which they formulate their ideas of major and minor. These categories are useful for consideration of Köhler’s version of the Odyssey, a defining characteristic of which is the opposition she creates between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ forms of language, knowledge and power. Throughout the cycle she situates a standardising use of language, and with it the claim to objective perspective represented by the figure of Odysseus, as Deleuze and Guattari do, in dynamic opposition to her own poetics, which represent a form of the German language that can liberate ‘minoritarian’ (and often female) perspectives in the Odyssey.

Minor languages, according to Deleuze and Guattari, ‘do not exist in themselves: they exist in relation to a major language and are also investments of that language for the purpose of making it minor.’[iv] The quality of minor language as a form that emerges from the major is important for Köhler’s understanding of language, as is made clear in Wittgensteins Nichte (1999): ‘Das Sprechen über Sprache findet in der Sprache statt, von der es handelt – das Objekt der Untersuchung interferiert mit dem Subjekt […] keine Metaebene, keinen ÜberBlick’.[v] That is to say, for Köhler, there can be no critical discussion of language that is external to it and there can be no entirely ‘new’ language because that indicates the possibility of a perspective outside of the existing language; rather, a ‘minor’ form must be produced from within the ‘major’. Deleuze and Guattari’s statement that ‘it is in one’s own language that one is bilingual or multilingual’ therefore conceptually opens up the possibility of ‘translating’ within one’s own language, as new ‘minor’ languages emerge through critical and creative engagement with ‘major’ uses.[vi]

The section of Niemands Frau titled ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ (afterword, for now), which consists of three texts, is important for the argument of this chapter, as it is there that Köhler articulates most clearly what she criticises in earlier reception and translation of the Odyssey, and how she envisages her own text. Therefore a brief discussion of the status of the ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ section is required, as to treat the texts as traditional ‘afterwords’ would be misleading.

The way in which Köhler sets out the ‘afterwords’ is in keeping with the notion discussed above that there is no entirely external space from which to comment on language, but gestures nonetheless towards the reflective externality of a paratext. In labelling the ‘afterwords’ section ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’, she indicates that they may not be a permanent reflection external to the flow of time, but situated in, and contingent on the moment in which they were written. As afterwords traditionally are, the three texts of ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ are situated after what can be conceived of as the ‘main’ poetic texts. However, Köhler numbers them among the 24 sections that include the ‘main’ poetic texts. The numbering itself, though, is in turn undermined by being placed in parentheses, which the numbers for the ‘main’ texts are not, and includes the addition of a separate numbering system specific to the three afterwords: 1 (/22), 2 (/23), 3 (/24). The afterwords therefore hover formally in suspended animation between poetic text and reflective paratext: they are signalled as both belonging and not belonging to the ‘main text’. Stylistically too, the texts in the ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ section are in a liminal state, as they recall the more evidently ‘poetic’ texts, but are more formally regular and obviously coherent than the ‘main’, ‘poetic’ texts. By doing this, Köhler incorporates reflection and criticism into the text, and attempts to ensure that her work cannot become monumentalised or completed. However, as the tone of the ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ is more explanatory than the rest of the cycle, which is often very cryptic, her strategy of preventing it from being used to gain a clearer, and to a degree more external, perspective on the rest of the text is not entirely successful. Nonetheless, by incorporating criticism into the whole, Köhler shows how her ‘minor’ text emerges from the ‘major’ that it seeks to resist.

Although in the ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ Köhler describes having read the Ancient Greek of Homer’s original text (p. 84), she primarily engages with and criticises the existent German translations of the Odyssey. She implies that the German into which earlier translators have rendered it is insufficient to communicate the semantic flexibility of the Ancient Greek text, and that their versions privilege a patriarchal, nationalist perspective, to the exclusion of other, notably female perspectives. This is most clearly communicated in the following passage from the last of the three texts in ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ that conclude the cycle:

Immer wieder aber kam ich zurück auf diesen uralten

stoff in diesen zusammenhängen, dieser sprache.

Diese geschichten von vater und sohn: wie man Einer

wird und einer mann wird, wie Er ein Ich wird, sich

einen namen macht, geschichte (Mach bloß keine ge–

schichten, sagte da einer zu einer). Wie die frauen

in der geschichte da sind, als wärn sie nicht wirk-

lich da: bloß für ihn, für den helden da. Und immer

wieder kam ich an stellen, wo neben dem helden,

diesem großen erzähler, nach und nach seine nach-

erzähler, übersetzer und deuter deutlich wurden, die

ihn (und seinen autor) in heldenhaft nahmen, die

monologische loge: sprachbeherrscher, wortmachthaber

und deutungshoheiten und mit ihnen der wortschatz,

die rechthabe und großmannssucht des 18. bis

  1. jahrhunderts. Wie sich zwischen den verschiednen

übersetzungen oder zwischen deutung und erzählung

lücken auftaten, in denen zumal frauen sang- und

klanglos verschwanden. (pp. 83-84)

Köhler constructs a web of negative associations with the Odyssey as she encountered it ‘in diesen zusammenhängen, dieser sprache’ (German). First, she portrays the translated text as a narrative of father and son in which women are secondary and subservient to the hero. Second, she charges translators and cultural transmitters of the Odyssey with privileging Odysseus’s voice and perspective, and with idolising Homer as a solo authorial genius, even though the single authorship of the Odyssey, and Homer’s identity were, and still are, factually unclear.[vii] Third, Köhler situates the reverence in which Homer and Odysseus are held in the context of German nationalism during the eighteenth to twentieth centuries (‘die rechthabe und großmannssucht des 18. bis 20. jahrhunderts’), when the intellectual elite looked to Ancient Greek culture as an antecedent to that of the emergent German nation. She criticises their hero-worship of Homer and Odysseus as a celebration of the use of language as a means to dominate, as indicated by her vocabulary such as ‘sprachbeherrscher’ and ‘wortmachthaber’. The associations that Köhler makes in the latter half of the extract between German reception of the Odyssey in the period leading up to the twentieth century, megalomania and the use of language to wield power, places the earlier translations in a historical trajectory that ultimately leads to National Socialism. Fourth, the translations and reception of the Odyssey are cast, again in patriarchal terms, as having the effect of silencing the female voices within the Odyssey, and by extension within German language and culture.

The connections that Köhler makes in the above passage are borne out by scholarly research into the German reception of Greek literature. Günter Häntzschel describes the relationship between the reception of Homer from the mid-eighteenth century onwards and a growing Germanic patriotism: ‘Die außergewöhnlich intensive Begeisterung für das griechische Altertum und die homerischen Epen seit der Mitte des 18. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland wie der Wunsch nach einer Homerübersetzung aus Patriotismus sind historisch als ein spezifisch nationales zu erklären.’[viii] Häntzschel shows that, after several centuries when French language culture had completely dominated intellectual life and Ancient Greek was mainly learnt for theological purposes, the rediscovery of Homeric literature played a central role in the growth in confidence and enrichment of the German language. Eric Blackall’s The Emergence of German as a Literary Language 1770-1775 (1959) points to the numerous attempts to find similarities between Greek and German during the eighteenth century in order to strengthen the case for German as a legitimate literary language rather than a mere underdog to French.[ix]

In 2000, Köhler published a selection of poems from Niemands Frau in a volume devoted to radical translation, prefacing what was to become her opening poem by reproducing the first ten lines of three earlier German verse translations of the Odyssey: those by Johann Heinrich Voss (1781), Anton Weiher (1955) and Roland Hampe (1979). Köhler thereby seems to position her text as a first ‘translation’ of the Odyssey by a woman, or a riposte to earlier translations, by appending herself as the final name in an otherwise male genealogy.[x] Her depiction of the translation tradition as dominated by men is indeed reflected by the lack of female translators of the Odyssey. From the eighteenth century to the present, German translators of Homeric epics have been exclusively male. This is emphasized by the complete absence of reference to any translations of Homer by women among the numerous ones that are considered and referenced in Homer und die deutsche Literatur (2010), a special issue of Text + Kritik, and the absence of women from the list of translators since the beginning of the modern era (1500-2010).[xi]

When the German fervour for translating Homeric texts began in the wake of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Nachahmung der griechischen Werke (1755), women’s translation of English or French texts into German for the more commercial market was relatively socially accepted, as ‘the translator [could] distance herself from the risks or taboos of original authorship’.[xii] However even highly educated women were unlikely to translate Homeric and other classical texts during this period as they were generally permitted little or no classical education, and such scholarly work was considered an inappropriate activity for women, offending notions of femininity.[xiii] Women’s perspectives and voices as translators were therefore excluded from German renderings of classical texts.

Of the three translations of the Odyssey that Köhler references, the verse translation published by Voss in 1781 is by far the most famous, and is still in print.[xiv] According to Charlie Louth, ‘Voss’s Odyssey […] was the first translation since Luther’s Bible to reach the status of a classic’, with the result that ‘for the second time a vital stage in the development of the language [was] intimately bound up with translation’.[xv] His method was to reproduce, as far as possible, the hexameter of Homer’s text, also retaining Greek syntax and word order, as well as the form of individual words. By bringing the rules of Greek to the German text, Voss’s translation found for German ‘a flexibility and plasticity it had not hitherto possessed, or which had been deadened by the normalization and rationalization the Aufklärung had subjected it to.’[xvi] Voss used the different limits of the Ancient Greek language to expand and shift the limits of what was possible for the German language. He employed what would now be termed a ‘foreignizing’ method of translation, by introducing structural elements of the source language into the target language and thereby changing the structure of the target language, German.[xvii] From his first version in 1781, he went on to develop his method, with a revision in 1793 that went further in assimilating German to Greek by removing capitalization, and with an even more literal rendition of Greek word order. Voss articulated his delight in Homeric Greek in the many essays and texts he wrote around the time of translation: ‘Wir müssen unsre Kenntniß von der Erde vergessen und mit Homeren Kinder werden, wenn wir ihn verstehen wollen’.[xviii]

For Voss, the existing post-Enlightenment world view was inadequate for an understanding of Homer, whose texts call for new ways of thinking, as well as new ways of constructing German to translate, as is evident from the radical nature of his translations. Somewhat ironically therefore, given Köhler’s general censure of the Odyssey as she had read it ‘in dieser sprache’, which implicates Voss’s translation as the best known, his enthusiasm for the Ancient Greek is echoed by his successor in her afterword, where she claims to have felt ‘voll von staunen über ihre [the language’s] buchstäblichen / möglichkeiten, freude an schriftbildern, klangfiguren’ (p. 84). Although Köhler gives no glimpse of a positive evaluation of the contribution to the German language made by Voss and subsequent translators, Niemands Frau, with its irregular syntax and lack of capitalization, shares qualities with Voss’s revised translation; and had Köhler quoted that version, in the volume where she quotes earlier translations, there would have been visible similarities between the two. While Köhler may strive to distance herself politically from earlier German translators of the Odyssey, she shares stylistic predilections with Voss, and the thrill she expresses in discovering Homeric Greek and the possibilities it creates when in dialogue with German must surely be common to all.

Having politically defined what Niemands Frau will not be in relation to other translations, Köhler defines aesthetically what her ‘minor’ translation will resist. She sets her ‘different’ form of translation apart from the practice that seeks to create equivalence between texts:

Eine andere art von übersetzung: eine erwiderung,

entgegnung, für die ein wechselkurs von bedeutung

nicht von vornherein feststeht, angelegt ist als

1:1, geradlinig »zielführend« zum (zu)treffenden,

›richtigen‹ wort-oder-ort; ein übersetzen von eins

zu anders, von sprachraum zu raum, die je eigne und

mannigfache beziehungsweisen, bewegungsmöglichkeiten

zwischen wörtern und orten kennen (p. 87)

Using the language of commerce, she represents the criticised form of translation as being akin to currency exchange – ‘wechselkurs’ – where the exchange rate is 1:1. The semantic content of the translated text is a foregone conclusion, with a translator attempting to replicate the text in an ‘appropriate’ way. Köhler’s criticisms of this type of translation practice are echoed by Lawrence Venuti, who describes the form of translation that implies that a flawless exchange can be made as an ‘instrumental model of translation, the notion that a translation reproduces or transfers an invariant that is contained in or caused by the source text, whether its form, its meaning or effect’.[xix] Conceiving of the translated text as an ‘invariant’ is ethically problematic because it conceals the inscription of the translator and the power relationships that make the translation partial and contingent, and creates the appearance of an ‘abstract standard’ of ‘major’ language. The domesticating gloss of an ‘instrumental translation’ must conform to prevailing linguistic norms, and indeed here Köhler depicts this form of translation as socially conservative and as a product of capitalism where the translated text must ‘meet targets’. The contrasting ‘minor’ form of translation that Köhler proposes is defined as a move away from a practice of equivalence of 1:1, creating instead ‘ein übersetzen von eins zu anders’. The difference arises partly from Köhler’s gendered perspective, which cannot generate a reproduction of classical language dominated by the patriarchal German she opposes. Köhler acknowledges that her engagement with the Odyssey is situated and gendered, and that she reads it Homer’s text ‘durch die augen einer lyrikerin’ (p. 84). Her ‘translation’ can be considered as a ‘minor’ one that uses a form of German which fiercely resists being read as the invisible language of the patriarchal majority, making Niemands Frau into an answer to her own criticisms.

Having established Köhler’s position with regard to the German classical tradition into which Niemands Frau is an intervention, and identified the ‘major’ translation practice against which Köhler works, the discussion now moves to the terms in which she conceptualizes her own work, and in particular the relationship that she creates between German pronouns, numbers, and quantum physics. Quantum physics provides Köhler with an analogy to describe positively what her poetics is, particularly because with their advent the limits of the physical world became uncertain and not fully calculable, and required a new mathematical language to express them. For Köhler, influenced by Wittgenstein, the limits of language use and awareness are mirrored in the limits of lived physical reality.[xx] The revolution in physics brought about by quantum mechanics therefore offers a precedent of what she hopes could be brought about in language.

In an interview with Suhrkamp about Niemands Frau in 2007, Köhler gives an outline of how she considers the pronoun ‘sie’ to be different from ‘er’. She treats the pronouns abstractly, giving them no context, and by doing this, she can demonstrate the polysemy of the lexeme ‘sie’:

[I]n dieser konkreten deutschen Sprache ist ‘sie’ wiederum nicht bloß die dritte Person Einzahl, es ist die dritte Mehrzahl und es ist die höfliche Anrede, also es ist ein ganz merkwürdiges, vieldeutiges Wort eigentlich. Während ‘er’ eigentlich Monomorph ist, eine Person männlich, dritte Person. Und während dieses ‘sie’ sich immer durchaus in unterschiedliche Richtungen bewegen kann. Es ist die Form der Möglichkeit.[xxi]

Köhler situates ‘sie’ as the key to her ‘translation’ of the Odyssey and derives from it a form of poetic language in German that can be defined as ‘minor’, as opening up creative possibilities for language to move semantically away from the finite qualities of ‘major’ language. She takes three elements from ‘sie’ here. First is its lexical polysemy as a printed or aural sign when it is deprived of capitalisation and of the context of a sentence. In normal usage either the differing verb form, the semantic content of the sentence, or capitalisation (in the case of ‘Sie’ as formal pronoun ‘you’) is required to distinguish between different meanings of ‘sie’. Second is the potential for movement that its polysemy generates, since as a word it has more than one potential semantic destination. And last is the conclusion that ‘sie’ is a form of ‘possibility’, rather than of finite, concrete meaning. By calling ‘sie’ ‘eine Form der Möglichkeit’, Köhler also relates it to the subjunctive – ‘die Möglichkeitsform’ – a verbal mood that introduces uncertainty into a statement, in contrast to the indicative, which expresses fact. ‘Er’ concretely refers to the singular masculine subject ‘he’, independent of context, and its meaning can only be in one place, at one time. The more uncertain quality of ‘sie’ is brought out poetically throughout Niemands Frau by the fact that one pronoun can have two verbs accorded to it, one for the singular (feminine) usage and one for the plural use. In addition ‘sie’ has the same form in the nominative and the accusative, unlike ‘er’, which becomes ‘ihn’, and so ‘sie’ can potentially be simultaneously subject or/and object. These qualities mean that within Niemands Frau movement can be poetically created between ‘sie’ as a referent for a single subject and a plurality of subjects, and between ‘sie’ as object and as subject. For example, in the poem ‘NAUSIKAA : RAPPORT’ (pp. 22-23) Köhler creates the lines:


bindet sie sind eine bewegung (p. 23)

The pronoun ‘sie’ here refers to both ‘she’ and ‘they’, as it has a relation to two verbs, ‘bindet’ and ‘sind’; and ‘bindet’ is also conjugated to relate to ‘er’. This line also expresses ‘sie’ as nominative and accusative, acting and acted upon, because with ‘er bindet sie’, ‘he binds her’, ‘sie’ is accusative. Semantically too here, ‘sie’ is restricted in movement, tied up and cannot therefore be active. With ‘sie sind eine bewegung’, the same printed lexeme becomes nominative, therefore active, and can both refer to a plural subject ‘they’ and also, given the irregular use of capitals, ‘you’, formal. Semantically ‘sie’ is freed from her bindings, and becomes pure movement and a plurality. These six words create a dialogue between the semantic level of language and what is occurring on a grammatical level.

As well as using ‘sie’ as a key to producing a language that is ambiguous and ‘minor’ through polysemy within German, Köhler mingles German with other languages, undermining the certainty that a printed sign necessarily refers only to a German referent, if the possibility exists for it to have a meaning in another language too; as for example in the last two lines of the first poem ‘MUSE : POLYTROP’:

la belle elle la plurielle immortelle kein einzig

Es wort keine einzige welle meine doppelte stelle (p. 12)

Here Köhler plays on the aural and visual qualities of the lexeme ‘elle’ (‘she’ in French) to make its meaning echo through other words. ‘[E]lle’ reappears in ‘plurielle’ (plural), recalling via French her observations made about the polysemy of ‘sie’, and ‘immortelle’, situating the source of eternal life in the ringing, rolling, peals of the ‘elle’ sounds. ‘[E]lle’ is heard again in the words ‘welle’ and ‘stelle’, which though German, suddenly are made to appear as if they are French words, because they resonate aurally and visually more with the preceding French than with the German of ‘kein einzig / Es wort’. This has the effect of seeming to give the German words a French origin or etymology, which makes them emerge from the ‘doppelte stelle’ by resonating in both languages simultaneously. ‘[E]lle’ also reappears aurally in ‘doppelte’ (italicisation mine) and together with ‘stelle’, embeds ‘elle’ in the idea of a collective, double speaking position, which Köhler gives ‘sie’ elsewhere in the cycle. Importantly, too, she creates a semantic connection here between ‘elle’ and ‘welle’. ‘[W]elle’ reappears later in the cycle in the term ‘wellenfunktion’ (p. 81), a term from quantum physics describing simultaneous plural probability, which Köhler uses as a metaphor to define her poetics. Thereby the figure of a single printed sign (‘welle’) that apparently emerges from two linguistic genealogies simultaneously (French and German) is relocated in a speaking subject who uses a singular possessive pronoun to announce that she (he? it?) speaks from two positions (‘meine doppelte stelle’), and then appears as the ‘wellenfunktion’, where a moving particle can theoretically have more than one trajectory. Through these networks of recurring aural, visual and semantic figures, Köhler constructs a constantly shifting poetic ‘sea’ that cannot be separated into discrete sections.

In Wittgensteins Nichte, Köhler describes the shift she wants to create in language using the terminology of quantum physics, where calculations produce probabilities, not certainties: ‘Differenz und Wahrscheinlichkeit statt Kausalität, die Mehrzahl der Möglichkeiten statt Einzahl der Gründe und Folgen.’[xxii] Indeed, throughout Niemands Frau and in her theoretical texts, Köhler positions the linguistic paradigm shift that she seeks to create with Niemands Frau as analogous to that which took place in physics in the early twentieth century, with the advent of quantum physics. She draws her poetics into the broader context of the uncertainty of knowledge through an engagement with quantum physics. Newtonian physics, in which there are consistent rules about the movement of particles, so that the movement of, for example, a bouncing ball can be accurately calculated, is comparable to the consistent, ‘major’ form of language that Köhler opposes. Of quantum physics, John Gribbin, influential author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat (1984), observes in contrast: ‘It is a cardinal rule of quantum mechanics that in principle it is impossible to measure certain pairs of properties, including position/momentum, simultaneously. There is no absolute truth at Quantum level.’[xxiii] This makes quantum physics a science of the ‘probable’, where there is uncertainty, just as ‘sie’, in Köhler’s interpretation, is a ‘Form der Möglichkeit’. ‘Sie’ is the quantum linguistic particle at the heart of the shift that Köhler desires to create from ‘major’ to ‘minor’: from ‘er’ to ‘sie’. In the following lines from the second afterword in Niemands Frau, Köhler introduces the aforementioned idea of the ‘wellenfunktion’ or ‘wave function’ to define what she seeks to create poetically. The ‘wave function’ is the term for the description of what can be known about quantum particles when they are not being observed. It describes a field of co-existent probabilities for the velocity and location of a particle. The field of co-existent probabilities can be used to describe the range of possible meanings for ‘sie’, as Köhler conceives them:

Im gedicht. Die aufrecht-

erhaltung der wellenfunktion, der möglichkeit(en)

eines anderen zum realen, reellen. (p. 81)

To calculate the wave function, the use of ‘complex’ numbers is required, which cannot be expressed as ‘real’ (‘reell’) numbers. ‘Real’ numbers, which are exclusively used in Newtonian physics, are ‘normal’ numbers, like 1, 2, 3 etc., and can be easily counted. A different mathematical ‘language’ that includes imaginary numbers, which cannot be expressed as a single whole number like ‘1’, is needed in quantum physics.

In the poem ‘HADES : LEKTÜRE : HADES’ (pp. 39-41), Köhler frames the countability of the male subject as intrinsic to the continuation of patriarchy and patriarchal narrative. Its content relates to the narrative strand in the Odyssey where Odysseus’s son Telemachus grows up and takes his place as master of the house in his father’s absence, thereby continuing Odysseus’s family line:[xxiv]

auf linie gebracht die patrilinie worauf sich zählen

erzählen lässt das einfache das lesbare das legitime

was zählt: EIN MANN EIN WORT ein sohn ein vater eine

abstraktion das geht nicht ohne schrift das muss man

festhalten & überliefern (pp. 39-40)

Counting, linear narration and patriarchy are made synonymous through repetition of the morpheme ‘zähl’, linking ‘zählen’ and ‘erzählen’. The composition of the word ‘erzählen’, to narrate, from ‘er’, ‘he’, and ‘zählen’, ‘to count’, in the context of the rest of this passage, and Köhler’s literal approach to lexemes that sound or look the same, tells the reader that it is ‘his’ narrative that counts. ‘Er-zählt’, ‘er’ = 1. She literally creates a semantic ‘patrilinie’ on the page by juxtaposing ‘EIN MANN EIN WORT ein sohn ein vater’ consecutively along a line of text. The insertion of ‘EIN WORT’ into this sequence situates the source of patriarchal power at the level of language and control of how language is used. This is explicitly reinforced out by the final lines of this extract: ‘das geht nicht ohne schrift das muss man / festhalten & überliefern’. The continuation of patriarchy rests on establishing and handing down a ‘major’ narrative that privileges the male word and defines the legitimate standard, according to Köhler. ‘His’ narrative is ‘das einfache das lesbare das legitime’. The legitimacy of the hegemonic patriarchal narrative for Köhler is therefore bound to its simple legibility and portrayal of a calculable reality, and by implication, its exclusion of what cannot be counted using ‘real’ numbers, or more complex language. To use Roland Barthes’s terms, for Köhler, ‘er’ initiates a linguistic reality of the ‘lisible’, where the reader is a consumer of an easily cohered and finite language.[xxv] ‘Sie’ in contrast is a lexeme that = ? or >1 and initiates a participatory reality of the ‘scriptible’, where the reader must construct a contingent and non-finite reading, while bearing in mind other possibilities.[xxvi] What can be read easily is non-participatory, because it does not contain the ambiguity that allows readers space for their own subjective agency of ‘becoming’ within the text, but uses language to dominate and enforce its power.

The idea of a ‘participatory’ poetic text, whose meaning always has the potential to move in a number of different directions, and which thereby sustains a ‘wave-function’, has implications for the role of the reader or ‘observer’ and for knowledge. The final epigraph in Niemands Frau, ‘Die Beobachterin ist Teil des Systems’(p. 8), refers to the important idea in quantum physics that the observer is part of the system he/she is observing so that she/he cannot obtain a perspective outside of the system from which to construct objective knowledge. Consistent with Köhler’s finding of common ground between physics and language, this action also has the effect at the beginning of the cycle of announcing the contingent perspective of this translator, with the added suffix referring to what was left out of earlier translations. By specifying her gender by using the suffix ‘–in’, she refuses the supposedly universal, ungendered form of the noun ‘Beobachter’, that veils the masculine as the ‘abstract standard’.

In the notes to the first ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ text, Köhler reads Odysseus’s self-negation as ‘Niemand’ (‘Nobody’) in the incident with Polyphemus in Homer’s text as an attempt to create an absolute ‘outside’, objective viewpoint, like the ‘nullpunkt’ or ‘point of origin’ on a graph. That is to say, Odysseus positions himself ‘outside’ reality, not having an identity, and she accuses him of seeking to control reality by not being subject to it:

Andererseits setzt das Ich, das sich Niemand nennt und

nennen lässt, setzt Odysseus damit den nullpunkt, den

koordinatenursprung im system abendländischer logik und

subjektkonstruktion, den ort des »objektiven« beobachters,

der selber nicht als teil des systems erscheint, auf den

aber (zb als augpunkt des zentralperspektivischen kon-

strukts) alles hinausläuft – und setzt damit die lineare

einheit, den einen, der zählt: den abstand, die strecke

von null bis eins: das maß alles zählens. (pp. 102-103)

In this passage Köhler suggests that by negating himself and therefore becoming ‘null’, Odysseus creates the possibility of being ‘the one who counts’, by creating the concept of counting. The measure of all counting in ‘real’ numbers is the distance between nought and one, therefore by moving himself from being ‘one’ (Odysseus) to being ‘nought’ (Niemand), Odysseus can ‘count’ or divide up the world and order it from an ‘external’ perspective. Like a Newtonian observer, Odysseus is portrayed as attempting to make himself free from the subjective influence of immersion in reality so that he can order and dominate it. With this reading Köhler almost loses sight of the point that within Homer’s Odyssey Odysseus tries to prevent direct encounters with monsters like Polyphemus and the Sirens in order to ensure his survival, instead using his actions as a springboard from which to criticize the reception of them in Western thought. The position of objectivity that Odysseus is depicted as seeking to obtain is broadened out in this passage to refer to an idealised position of observation, reflected in language, that situates itself as an ‘abstract standard’ merely reflecting a stable, constant reality.[xxvii] In Niemands Frau, Köhler seeks to bring about the breakthrough of a minor language and a plurality of perspectives silenced by earlier engagement with Homer’s Odyssey.

To conceive of Niemands Frau as a radical, ‘minor’ translation of the Odyssey is an approach that considers it a political intervention into the German reception of Homer, rather than a peripheral poetic work, making it a text that resists the marginalisation of women in the classical tradition by participating in it. If the language of Köhler’s text is viewed as a ‘translation’ into a ‘minor’ form of German, that is to say, into a form that articulates ontological differences repressed by a normative, patriarchal ‘major’ use of German, one begins to get to the ethical heart of Niemands Frau. As Deleuze and Guattari write of minor language: ‘Continuous variation is the becoming-minoritarian of everybody, as opposed to the majoritarian Fact of Nobody’.[xxviii] With her ‘translation’ into a ‘minor’ form of German, Köhler seeks to create a form that is not mimetic of a constant reality of ‘Nobody’, but which has potential for being shaped by, and representing, difference. In Niemands Frau she has created a language that is always ‘minor’ because it is always shifting to a different meaning, deterritorializing itself from conveying a single understanding that could be situated as ‘final’, that could become dominant. The movement of meaning both has a serious philosophical-ethical emphasis, not allowing one (patriarchal) ‘reading’ of reality to dominate, making space for difference, and also has the effect of invigorating language as a site of play for those who encounter it, making it responsive and plastic, rather than an edifice to be observed and obeyed.

By numbering the ‘afterwords’ as part of the sequence of 24 sections that include the texts that are more recognisably ‘poems’, and by crafting them in the highly stylised language of the poems, rather than in analytical prose, Köhler incorporates their reflections into the whole, and shows that that the language of the poems is not purely an aesthetic exercise. Integrating reflection on the text in the ‘Nachwort, vorläufig’ section as part of the whole is also consistent with her view that the ‘observer is part of the system’, because entirely external paratexts would presume that an external perspective on the ‘main’ text could be obtained. While Köhler paints an excessively black and white portrayal of earlier translations of the Odyssey for her own poetic and political purposes of constructing a binary, her resistance to them through her own ‘translation’ into her quantum poetics is a revolutionary endeavour that has the potential to make every reader a ‘foreigner in their own tongue’.[xxix]


[i] Barbara Köhler, Niemands Frau, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2007, p.87. Further references to this edition are given in brackets following quotations.

[ii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, London: Continuum, 2004, p. 116.

[iii] Ibid., pp. 116-117.

[iv] Ibid., p. 116.

[v] Barbara Köhler, ‘TANGO. EIN DISTANZ’, in: Köhler, Wittgensteins Nichte, Vermischte Schriften. Mixed Media, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2007, pp. 27-40 (here: p. 30).

[vi] Deleuze and Guattari, p. 116.

[vii] For a survey of scholarship on Homer’s identity and the authorship of the Odyssey, see Lillian E. Doherty, ‘Introduction’, in: Doherty, ed., Homer’s Odyssey. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 1-18 (here: pp. 1-12).

[viii] Günter Häntzschel, Johann Heinrich Voß – Seine Homer-Übersetzung als sprachschöpferische Leistung, Munich: Beck, 1977, p. 1.

[ix] Eric A. Blackall, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language 1770 –1775, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

[x] Barbara Köhler, ‘Niemands Frau. Gesänge zur Odyssee’, in: Peter Waterhouse, Ulrike Draesner and Barbara Köhler, :to change the subject, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Göttinger Sudelblätter), Göttingen: Wallstein, 2000, pp. 35-51.

[xi] Homer und die deutsche Literatur. Text + Kritik Sonderband, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold Munich: Richard Boorberg, 2010.

[xii] Hilary Brown, Benedikte Naubert (1756-1819) and her Relations to English Culture, London: Maney, 2005, pp. 22-28 (here: pp. 24-25).

[xiii] Hilary Brown, ‘Women and Classical Translation in the Eighteenth Century’, German Life and Letters, 59 (2006), 344-360.

[xiv] Homer, Odyssee, trans. Johann Heinrich Voss, Basel: Birkhäuser, 1953.

[xv] Charlie Louth, Hölderlin and the Dynamics of Translation, Oxford: Legenda, 1998, pp. 5-53 (here: pp.28; 27).

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 26-27.

[xvii] Lawrence Venuti, ‘Strategies of translation’, in Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 240-244.

[xviii] Johann Heinrich Voss, ‘Über den Ozean der Alten’, Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaft und Literatur, 1 (1780), 297-309 (here: 298).

[xix] Lawrence Venuti, ‘The poet’s version; or, An ethics of translation’, Translation Studies, 4 (2011), 230-247 (here: 234).

[xx] For more on this, see: Helmut Schmitz, ‘Viele Ausgänge’? On Some Motifs in Barbara Köhler’s Poetry’, in Entgegenkommen. Dialogues with Barbara Köhler, eds Georgina Paul and Helmut Schmitz (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 127-146.

[xxi] Interview between Barbara Köhler and Suhrkamp in 2007: [accessed: 20 February 2012].

[xxii] Barbara Köhler, ‘ZWISCHEN DEN BILDERN. Sieben Texte zur Grammatik einer Differenz’, in: Wittgensteins Nichte, pp. 75- 92 (here: p. 81).

[xxiii] John Gribbin, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, London: Black Swan, 1991, pp. 120-121.

[xxiv] Homer, Odyssee, pp. 10-14.

[xxv] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Millar, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, pp. 3-4.

[xxvi]  Ibid.

[xxvii] Deleuze and Guattari, p. 117.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 118.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 116


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